The New York Giants invested first- and second-round picks in the previous two NFL drafts at the edge position. They selected Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux with the fifth overall selection in last years draft, and took Georgia ‘s Azeez Ojulari in the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft. There’s another Georgia pass rusher who made an impression at the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine, and his name is Nolan Smith.
Azeez Ojulari’s former teammate at Georgia is used to the fanfare. Smith was the number one ranked prospect during the 2019 recruiting cycle. In odd ways, he’s linked to both the Giants’ first-round picks from last year’s draft.
Smith was the only player in 2019 who was ranked higher than Thibodeaux by 247 Sports. Smith attended IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., which is the same elite football factory attended by Giants tackle Evan Neal.
The edge defender didn’t produce to the pedigree of other first-overall prospects. He never had more than 4.5 sacks in a season, and he never played 500 snaps during a single season. This, though, is a product of Georgia’s ample five-star depth. Georgia has a deep defensive line rotation and the Bulldogs are a team that blows out the majority of their opponents; hence less snaps than other programs.
FTravon Walker, first overall pick in 2022, didn’t play 600 snaps in any given season. Azeez Ojulari also never cracked 500 snaps in a season. Smith only went north of 300 once in 2021; he likely would have in 2022, but tore his pectoral muscle against Florida in Week 9.
Smith finished his time as a Bulldog with 84 pressures, 12.5 sacks, and 20 tackles for a loss. Refinement with the art of pass rushing was materializing before his pectoral injury. Smith started to string moves together, his aiming points were more precise, and he seemed to understand how to threaten offensive linemen more with his natural gifts - his elite suddenness and athletic ability.
He may have only had 12.5 sacks, but he’s only rushed the passer 621 times throughout his college career. So he sacked the quarterback one in every 49 pass-rushing snaps, which is more than Texas Tech edge defender Tyree Wilson and LSU edge B.J. Ojulari.
According to Pro Football Focus, Nolan Smith had a 25.5 percent pass rush win rate, which was fifth-highest of all pass-rushers who played at least 20 percent of their team’s snaps in 2022. Smith was well higher than all the other top EDGE rushers in the class.
[*pass rush win rate is a metric used to determine how often a pass rusher wins in 2.5 seconds or less]
Smith had a memorable combine:
Brought up on broadcast yesterday, but Georgia pass rusher Nolan Smith has an extremely close #RAS athletic comp to Eagles pass rusher Haason Reddick. Nearly the same size, but faster and more explosive. pic.twitter.com/GcTJjSz2ET— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) March 3, 2023
NFL Network announces that Georgia edge Nolan Smith, at 238 pounds, is the heaviest player with a sub 4.4 40-yard dash (4.39) and vertical over 40" (41.5") in combine history. pic.twitter.com/DnCLZirHyd— Kipp Adams (@KippLAdams) March 2, 2023
"I wasn't even running full speed."— NFL (@NFL) March 2, 2023
Nolan Smith ran an insane 4.44u and wasn't satisfied. @GeorgiaFootball
: #NFLCombine on @nflnetwork
: Stream on NFL+ pic.twitter.com/VgxkjUNqp6
Impressive is an understatement for these athletic tests, but the issue plaguing Smith’s profile - outside of a totaility of production - is his size. He’s only 6-foot-2, 238 pounds, and some NFL teams may take exception to that fact.
One would surmise that Smith was a liability as a run defender, given his stature, but the exact opposite is true. Smith is technically proficient with excellent leverage, and physical violent nature. Sure, there will be times in the NFL when bigger offensive linemen may get the best of him, but it’s not something that was evident on tape in college. He was a sound run defender.
Before turning heads on the field, Smith displayed true charisma and leadership at the podium in front of NFL media. He was certainly one of the big winners of the week at the combine. Here’s a video of the impact he has on the field.